In Praise Of The Album

Why we should be celebrating the way they make our lives spin

Friday 12th October 2018

Written by Paul Stokes

Photo: Adam Prosser

“And do me a favour, will you break my nose...” As single lyrics go, few in this writer’s opinion can match that line for the sheer number of evocative possibilities it conjures up. Tragic and comic, hopeful yet desperate; the way this line draws out the absurd in romantic desperation is simply beautiful. It is possibly one of the finest things Alex Turner has ever written, and fittingly it is but one lyric within the atmospherically restless, emotionally charged Do Me A Favour, arguably one of Arctic Monkeys’ best songs. The band, it seems, agree. Since it first appeared as track seven on second album Favourite Worst Nightmare, it’s rarely been absent from their live set, recently playing a pivotal role bridging new Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino material with the rest of the Arctic Monkeys’ canon during their UK tour. 

And yet track seven is the only place DMAF (as the band call it) can be found. It truly is the quintessential “album track”: beloved by fans and band; never conceived or considered for an exposed life as a single; it owes its entire existence down to the album.

So if you’re asking why the old LP format is being celebrated with the first ever National Album Day, the ‘album track’ should be all the reason you need. The 12-inch record played at 33 ⅓ RPMs might have been initially invented 70 years ago just to fit more tracks on vinyl, but the extra space inadvertently made room for artistic statements and songs that didn’t have to be straightjacketed by the pressures of radio and jukeboxes. So if National Album Day inspires you to revisit just one gem like Do Me A Favour then both it and the vinyl format have improved your life immeasurably.

Yet the great thing is the album didn’t stop with just one non-single track per record, there are many of them that when played together along with all the singles, in an order devised by the artist who created them it all becomes very much more the than the sum of its proverbial parts. Whether you dive into a mood, get taken on a journey, experience a unique atmosphere or simply just like all the songs, across genres and generations the greatest albums offer a true experience.

Novelist and Billy Bragg at the launch of National Album Day's exhibition at Waterloo Station. Photo: Sue Moore

“Investing time in a piece of work that’s been carefully sequenced, considered, laboured over and artistically developed as a whole, is magical,” agrees Natasha Youngs who owns Brighton record shop Resident Music, and is chairwoman of annual vinyl/shop celebration Record Store Day (RSD). “Just as you can’t appreciate a film from its trailer, a work of art from a quick glance, or a book from its back-cover synopsis, you can’t assess the significance of a musician or band from a single. An album can be a lifelong friend, transporting you to a time and a place, to people, events and memories. An album can form connections to people, bond us to a tribe, create a sense of unity and belonging – it can offer a common understanding.”

Which is why RSD, its parent body the Entertainment Retailers Association and the BPI came together to organise a day annually celebrating all things album.

“We may live in a streaming generation where shuffle play and playlists are the norm but in order to preserve the incredible cultural significance of the album as an art-form, it’s crucial that we protect it, celebrate it and remind ourselves what a precious and immersive experience listening to a full length album can be,” argues Youngs of the first National Album Day, which included the “Nation's Biggest Album Playback” at 3.33pm on Saturday 13th October. Music fans were invited to share on socials pictures of their favourite records, underlining yet another key quality the album possesses: since the 1950s it has given music an artistic stature and a physical place in the world it never really had before. Sheet music in the pre-LP era, and now streaming are both convenient and beautiful ways of disseminating a wide breadth of music around the world, but it has been hand-in-hand with the album’s evolution that popular music’s cultural reputation has been transformed. Once dismissed as a fad, it now uniquely covers a spectrum that ranges from highly commercial to high art, yet sometimes is both at once.

These artistic statements made via albums – and on their covers – has also energised and re-popularised visual art too, thanks to the need for artwork. This is something National Album Day is recognising by kicking off a vote to discover the UK’s favourite piece of cover art.

“Without doubt the music is always the centrepiece of the album experience, but the artwork is an extension of artistic expression and an absolutely integral part of the creative process. This visual extension to some artists is as important as the music itself,” says Beggars Group’s Head of Creative Alison Fielding, one of the judges who helped to create the shortlist. “To me, it’s so exciting when the album project works as a whole, the music, the sleeve, the buzz. On a personal note a cracking sleeve will always draw me in and encourage a listen and investigate a new band or artist.”

National Album Day's exhibition at Waterloo Station, covering 70 years of album artwork and aiming to discover the nation's favourite album cover. Photo: Sue Moore

While growing streaming revenues might now be offering an increasingly sustainable future to new talent, it is the albums they are still creating that ensure the cultural infrastructure that nurtures other would-be musicians and artists to continue to exist. Since its inception in 2008, Record Store Day has done incredible work to ensure that independent record shops – the hubs where independent music minds meet, swap ideas, go off to play grassroots venues and ultimately create exciting new music – remain open, an effort underpinned year-round by the album. “As singles live more and more exclusively on streaming playlists, without the album, record shops simply wouldn't exist,” declares record shop owner Youngs.

So do we need a day celebrating albums? Do Me A Favour, from unique, beautiful songs that could only be conceived within the context of a collection of songs, to experiences that chart and define our lives. Not forgetting the brilliant visuals designed to inspire and the great record shops that stay open. It’s not a case of why National Album Day is needed, but why it isn’t a national holiday?

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